Saturday, 14 January 2016

10:01 – It was 19 degrees colder this morning than yesterday morning, 37F (3C) versus 56F, with drizzle and fog. It’s to be like this for the next several days.

Lynn from B&T Tire called late yesterday afternoon. The Trooper was fixed and ready to pick up. It was a lower radiator hose. It had come loose from a clamp and come up against the power-steering belt, which cut a long slice into it. Lynn asked if the truck was overheating. I told him I’d been keeping an eye on it and it was behaving just as normal. It comes up to temperature pretty quickly after it’s started, and never gets above about a third of the way up the temp gauge. He was surprised, since he said there was only about a quart of coolant left in the system. He drained that, flushed the system, and pressure-tested it at 13PSIG for half an hour or so with nary a drip. So it’s good to go.

There was a first yesterday in the US, and not in a good way. A 70-year-old woman in Nevada died of a bacterial infection that was resistant to all 26 antibiotics that are approved for human use in this country. FTA:

Then you get sick, your immune system is down, and you take antibiotics for an infection. The antibiotics kill everything but the resistant bacteria, which have by now collected all the resistance genes and no competition. That’s how you get a pan-resistant infection.

The danger isn’t just that a single pan-resistant bacteria emerges and terrorizes the world. It’s that pan-resistant bacteria can keep emerging independently. The nightmare might go away, only to come back somewhere else.

We’re fast approaching the end of the antibiotic era of human history. If things continue as they are, antibiotics will continue becoming less effective overall, and more PDR bacterial pathogens will continue to emerge. Within a few more years, at most a couple of decades, antibiotics will become essentially useless.

Scientists are working on alternatives, including nanoscale machines that are essentially microscopic hunter-killer submarines. They’re programmed to seek out and destroy specific bacterial pathogens. Eventually, they’ll be programmable on-the-fly to the infectious microorganism affecting a particular patient. But that’s probably a decade or two away.

In the meantime, I suspect humanity’s best bet will be bacteriophage viruses, which are genetically engineered to target specific pathogens. The Soviets and now the Russians have been working on bacteriophages for decades, and have had some successes.

Ultimately, the answer isn’t going to be developing new classes of antibiotics that depend on chemical mechanisms to destroy pathogenic bacteria; it’ll be on methods to selectively destroy them physically. It’s like the difference between a housefly becoming immune to chemical pesticides versus becoming immune to a flyswatter. The former happens continually; the latter isn’t going to happen.

10:50 – I just got back from picking up the Trooper at B&T Tire. The total was $110.69. In Winston-Salem, it would probably have been two or three times that.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

09:13 – We closed on the house in Winston yesterday, so we’re back to owning only one home. The next major project is to get our gravel driveway paved. I’ll call to get quotes Monday.

Email from Brittany, whose prepping is proceeding apace. Her foil-Mylar bags and oxygen absorbers have arrived, and they have a repackaging party scheduled for this weekend. They also picked up another two 50-pound bags of sugar, four 50-pound bags of flour, four 25-pound bags of beans, four 25-pound bags of white rice, about 50 pounds of pasta, 50 pounds of oatmeal, and 25 pounds of cornmeal, so with what they already had there’s a lot of repackaging to be done. Brittany happily notes that they now have enough to feed the four of them for six months, mostly in bulk staples, but with a reasonable amount of canned meats, sauces, and other foods as well. They also have a large order of Augason Farms stuff in #10 cans on the way from Walmart. And her husband is busy building shelves in the basement to store all this stuff once it’s repackaged. Brittany says that just looking at the piles of stuff is enough to make her feel much more secure, which is a common reaction of new preppers who’ve started to accumulate reasonable amounts of supplies.

We built another 28 chemistry kits yesterday, which takes our finished goods inventory on those to about four dozen. We’ll get started today on another batch of biology kits. Once we get those complete, it’ll be lather, rinse, and repeat though August and into September. In prior years, there’ve been weeks when I was so busy shipping kits that I didn’t have time to build more. I think our all-time record was 34 kits in one day. With Barbara available full-time this year, keeping up shouldn’t be a problem.

09:25 – Science is never “settled”, as any real scientist understands. How a Guy From a Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology

Thursday, 27 November 2014

10:42 – Barbara picked up a Saturnalia tree on her way home from work yesterday. She’s decorating the tree right now with lights, ornaments, and the traditional stuffed panda sitting on top. Barbara’s heading over to her sister’s house for Thanksgiving. For me, this is just another work day. Barbara will bring me food later.

Work on the prepping book continues. Right now, I’m writing about hardening your home by such means as installing longer screws in door hinges, planting thorny bushes around the perimeter, and so on. One major problem for many homes is that their walls provide little to no resistance to bullets. I actually did some informal testing on this back in the 70’s, and found that even a .22 rimfire bullet penetrated most common residential wall types. The exceptions were concrete block and brick veneer, both of which stood up pretty well to anything up to and including .308/30-06 AP rounds. The block or brick was damaged, and couldn’t stand up to more than a couple heavy-caliber hits in the same place, but it provided a reasonable barrier.

Not really expecting to find any authoritative information on the subject, I just went out and did a Google search. I was surprised to find a technical report on just this topic from the Canadian Police Research Centre. They actually built examples of different types of residential walls and fired bullets from various pistols and rifles at them. In the conclusion I found this sentence, which sums things up nicely: “Walls finished with either a clay brick or concrete brick veneer prevented all but the .50 Browning from complete penetration of the wall assembly.” And that “all” included the 7mm Remington Magnum and the .375H&H.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

10:33 – I’m still hard at work on the prepping book, but I need to take some time off to build some science kits. Kit sales this month are running slightly ahead of last November. Two-thirds of the way through the month, we’re at about 80% of last November’s total sales, so if the trend continues we’ll end up at about 120% month-on-month. Then comes December, which is a pretty heavy month, so we need to get finished-goods inventory built up for that.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has a good column posted about the US-China climate deal and its effect on the oil industry. I agree with the substance of his arguments, but I think he underestimates the impact of solar on petroleum. Forecasts are nearly always wildly optimistic over the short term and wildly pessimistic over the long term, and I think that’s the case here. The question is, how long a term?

Solar is poised to become a major source of electric power. We’ve known for a long time that this would happen eventually. Insolation on every square meter of the planet’s surface amounts to about a kilowatt. The only questions have always been how to convert that solar energy to a useful form–i.e, electricity–and how to store that electricity.

As to capture, the science is already there. We have the science and increasingly the technology for very high-efficiency solar panels. The real problem has been storage. Back in the 70’s I read a book on storage batteries by a guy named George Vinal. It was published in something like 1907, and the technology had hardly changed during the intervening 70 years. It’s changed massively in the 40 years since I read that book. Revolutionary advances have been made in the labs, and are now working their way into mass production.

So now it’s just a matter of engineering and manufacturing, and we have plenty of good engineers and factories. Even now, you can walk into a Home Depot and buy a pretty impressive solar array. They’ll even send a crew out to install it on your roof and connect it to your battery bank. Costs are plummeting, and more and more people are adopting solar power for part or all of their power needs. In many areas of the US, solar is already at “plug parity” with utility power. As costs continue to drop, solar will continue to displace utility power. My guess is that in 10 years solar will be commonplace, and in twenty it will have largely displaced electric utility power all over the US. The utilities will go down fighting, of course, but down they’ll go.

All of this is to the good. Better that every building is self-sufficient in electric power, including for cooling and heating than that we continue to build large power plants and run millions of miles of wire to distribute that power generated centrally. And far better that we cease consuming fossil fuels and instead leave them as feedstocks for chemical manufacturing.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

09:35 – Thanks to reader L. Daniel Rosa, who sent me the following link:

This is not a toy. It’s a serious instrument, albeit one the size of a standard microscope slide and a cost of only $0.50. They’re calling for 10,000 volunteer beta testers, each of whom will use the microscope to do something of their choice and write up a short lab session, protocol, or whatever. These will be winnowed and combined into an open-source biology/microscopy manual. I’m going to submit an application to be a beta tester as soon as I post this. I’d encourage any of my readers with any interest at all in microscopy or citizen science to do the same.

Friday, 29 March 2013

07:43 – I got email from Paul Jones yesterday afternoon shortly after I’d finished reading this article: X-Ray Structures Of Everything. Without Crystals. Holy Cow. As Paul said, if this technique holds up, it changes the world.

And you can be sure that we’ll soon know just how well the technique holds up. Right now, this morning, other scientists are attempting to reproduce these results in thousands of labs all over the world. I asked Paul if Wake Forest University had what he needed to test this technique. He replied that his only concern was that he didn’t know what computational resources would be needed and if WFU had access to them. If this is for real, and there’s no reason to think it isn’t, structural analysis of molecules, possibly including proteins, has just entered a whole new world. The implications are staggering.

How staggering? When I read Derek’s post, I literally checked the date to make sure it wasn’t April 1st.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

07:42 – I told Barbara last night that she shouldn’t worry about Colin and me at home. We can hold down the fort here if she wants to spend more time with her dad over the coming days, weeks, and possibly months. Today, she’s picking up her parents to drive them over to an audiologist appointment in High Point. They need to visit the audiologist regularly to get their hearing aids cleaned and checked. Her dad said he needed to keep this appointment. If Dutch is up to it, they may stop for dinner on the way home. If not, Barbara may have dinner with them at the retirement village. She’ll either bring me something for dinner or I’ll just make something for myself.

Work on science kits continues. Sales have slowed down a lot since the first half of this month, but we’re still doing well. So far this month, we’ve already sold more kits than we did in January, February, March, and April of 2012 combined. On that basis, I’m expecting things to really start getting busy starting in July. Between now and then, we’ll focus on getting chemical bottles ready, which is the real labor-intensive part. We can build kits pretty quickly on-the-fly if we don’t have to spend time labeling and filling bottles. With only a couple of exceptions, the chemicals we provide in the kits are stable indefinitely, which means we can make them up weeks to months ahead of time.

09:22 – Like “unionized”, “elegant” is a word that chemists use differently from most people. To a chemist, elegant means simple, with nothing wasted. I came across an excellent example of an elegant synthesis while reading Derek Lowe’s blog last week and checking one of the drugs he mentioned on Wikipedia. It’s metformin, a drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes.

“According to the procedure described in the 1975 Aron patent, and the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Encyclopedia, equimolar amounts of dimethylamine and 2-cyanoguanidine are dissolved in toluene with cooling to make a concentrated solution, and an equimolar amount of hydrogen chloride is slowly added. The mixture begins to boil on its own, and after cooling, metformin hydrochloride precipitates with a 96% yield.”

Wow. That is truly elegant. Simple, and nothing wasted. A 96%(!) yield, and the stuff just falls out of solution. That’s a synthesis that will warm the cockles of the heart of any synthetic chemist, let alone the chemical engineer who’s responsible for upscaling a laboratory-level synthesis to an industrial-level synthesis.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

07:53 – Barbara’s dad is still in the hospital. The news isn’t good, exactly, but it’s about the best that could be expected. Barbara’s hoping he’ll be released tomorrow or Friday and can go home. She and her sister are resigned to the fact that their dad’s congestive heart failure is chronic, and it’s likely that he’ll have repeat episodes every month or two indefinitely.

This episode hasn’t been much easier for Barbara and her sister than previous ones. The one bright point is that they don’t have to worry about their mom now that she’s in the retirement village rather than by herself at home. They’re trying to keep their mom away from the hospital as much as possible, particularly because of the nasty flu strain that’s going around. At her age and with her long-standing lung problems, a hospital is a very dangerous place for their mom to be. The retirement village staff is keeping a close eye on their mom, which is one less thing for Barbara and Frances to worry about.

10:01 – Yesterday while I was out with Colin, I ran into Paula, who lives across the street, walking her dog, Max. Max is almost 15 years old and on his last legs, literally.

Paula asked about Barbara’s dad. She went through the same thing with her dad a few years ago, and now she’s going through it with Max. Now, as then, she feels completely helpless to stop the downward slide, which of course she is. Paula is enraged about aging and death, and the fact that no one can do anything about it. I agree with her. Something needs to be done.

Biologically, of course, senescence and death are just a part of life. The old have to die to make room for the younger generations. Or do they? Some organisms are immortal for all intents and purposes. Individual examples of these organisms do not senesce, nor die from natural causes. Lazarus Long has real analogs in the natural world.

Scientifically, there’s no reason why normal human lifespans couldn’t be nearer a millennium than a century, or even ten or a hundred millennia. Nor is there any reason why humans couldn’t spend the vast majority of that extended lifespan in their prime rather than becoming increasingly decrepit as they age.

The real reason that so little work is being done on this has nothing to do with the science. It’s purely a matter of politics. Unless everyone can have it, no one can have it. And, unfortunately, even if we already knew how to extend lifespans by an order or orders of magnitude, the only people who would have access would be exactly the ones that shouldn’t: politicians. Meet the new boss, the same as the old boss, literally.

Even if we can’t (yet) arbitrarily extend human lifespans, there’s another alternative. While work continues on genetic engineering, we can at least clone those humans whose genomes are worth preserving. And if politics prevents that for the time being, we can at least collect and preserve DNA specimens from our geniuses in all fields. We do it now for plant seeds; there’s no reason we shouldn’t do it for humans. Eventually, although it may be centuries before it happens, we can use that DNA as seed material to create artificial human genomes that preserve all of the good things and eliminate all of the bad. As a matter of fact, I think I may start collecting cheek swab DNA samples from my genius friends.

11:24 – Hmmm. I’m running low on glass bottles (I still have plenty of plastic ones), so I just ordered a case of 10 mL amber glass bottles and seven cases of 30 mL amber glass bottles. At checkout, I was given a choice of one of two shipping methods. Next-day air cost $816.20. UPS ground cost $0.00. I dithered for all of a nanosecond before choosing the free shipping option.

Thursday, 3 January 2012

09:45 – I’ve been dithering about whether or not to include a mixed bacteria culture in the Life Science kits. Well, not literally a culture, because a culture is by definition reproducing. Such cultures are provided in a nutrient broth or on a nutrient agar slant, and require special handling, often including refrigeration. They’re normally shipped next-day air and must be opened and used within a couple days after they arrive. Even allowing the culture to sit undisturbed over a weekend can cause problems. The problem is that cultures continue reproducing until they run out of nutrients and become senescent. Mutations occur, and eventually the culture becomes useless.

Other than freeze-drying a culture, there are two ways to avoid that. First, one can reculture every few days to every few weeks, transferring a small amount of the culture to fresh media, and then repeating the reculturing as necessary to maintain a robust culture. That’s obviously not practical for pre-packaged science kits. Option two is to put the bacteria into stasis (essentially, hibernation) by inoculating either a sterile saline solution or a sterile PBS (phosphate-buffered saline) solution with the bacteria. The saline/PBS contains no nutrients, so the bacteria don’t reproduce. Stored in the dark at room temperature, such saline/PBS specimens may remain viable for anything from a few years to many decades, depending on the particular bacterial species and other factors.

The problem is that I don’t have years to decades to find out which species are suited to stasis, and there’s not a whole lot in the literature other than for pathogens. I’d like to provide a mixed group of non-pathogenic bacteria that encompass the three basic morphologies as well as examples of Gram-positive and Gram-negative species. It’d also be nice to have an example of a species that is a facultative anaerobe. On that basis, I’ve tentatively chosen Bacillus subtilis, Micrococcus luteus, and Rhodospirillum rubrum.

So, here’s what I think I’m going to do. Make up and autoclave a liter of saline or (probably) PBS. Using aseptic procedures, transfer about 5 mL of a robust mixed culture of those three species in nutrient broth to the 1 L of sterile saline, mix, and then fill 200 sterile 15 mL polypropylene centrifuge tubes to 5 mL each. Recap and tape each of the tubes, label them, and store them in the dark at room temperature.

Worst case, at least a few individuals of each species should survive statis, so reculturing in nutrient broth or on a nutrient agar slant or plate should produce colonies of each of the three species. Of course, I may be expecting too much of 7th or 8th grade students, not many of whom are very skilled in aseptic procedures. I suspect many, even most, of the tubes will end up contaminated with environmental bacteria, but I’ll have done what I can do.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

07:28 – Thanks to Lynn McGuire for the link to the following image.

As usual, xkcd gets the science right. The purple stain in the first panel is Hucker’s crystal violet, the primary stain used in Gram staining, and all of the presents are stained purple. The pink stain in the second panel is safranin O, used as the Gram counterstain. All of the presents have had the purple stain washed away, and are pink, indicating that these are Gram Negative presents.

09:20 – It appears that we won’t get much in the way of severe weather. As of yesterday morning, the forecasters were calling for heavy thunderstorms and possible tornadoes around here today, but now they’ve downgraded that to heavy rain and stiff winds. It’s about 39F and raining now, with wind gusts to around 25 MPH, but it seems likely that’s the worst we’ll get.